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Opinion 'Children need to learn about LGBT issues in school - it will reassure them and combat fear'

Robin Stevens grew up in a generation were ‘gayness was erased’. Her books have shown her that young readers want to read about LGBTQ+ lives – and she wants to see more of this explored in schools.

ONE OF THE nicest parts of my job as a children’s author is hearing from the kids who love my books. All of the messages I get are wonderful, but some of them particularly stay with me – none more so than the letter from a child who wanted to know whether Bertie and Harold, two characters from my 1930s series, The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries, would get married, and if so, when?

It was such a hopeful, friendly message – she loved them and she was firmly of the opinion that they should be married – but the letter itself felt astonishing. I was hearing from a person who couldn’t imagine a world where two men couldn’t get married if they wanted to.

That day I understood what it really meant for children to grow up with marriage equality. After all, anyone eight or younger in Ireland in 2019 will only have the very dimmest memories of a world without equal marriage – it is now simply part of a generation’s concept of how things are.

I’m 31 (not particularly old in the grand scheme of things, although children think it’s ancient), and how things are in 2019 leaves me feeling slightly dizzy. I was born five years before homosexuality was decriminalised in Ireland (and fifteen years before it was decriminalised in all parts of the country of my birth, America).

I grew up in the UK in a school system under Section 28, a law that prohibited the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality to children. I never read a children’s book with LGBTQ+ characters, and sex education at my school was almost entirely restricted to heterosexual partnerships.

Going on to live through the introduction of the 2013 Equal Marriage Act in Britain, the 2015 Irish marriage referendum, and, barely a month after Ireland’s vote, the Supreme Court ruling on equal marriage in the USA, has felt astonishing and genuinely miraculous – to say that nothing in my childhood prepared me for this is an understatement.

My generation, and the generations before us, are the result of childhoods where gayness was as erased as the government, the church, teachers or authority figures could manage.

They tried so hard, but here’s the thing: it didn’t work. It fixed nothing. It saved no one. We gained nothing. We simply lost – lost years of contentment, lost happy relationships, lost pride in ourselves and confidence in our choices.

The cost is something that my queer friends – that all of us – are still counting, and something that I never want another generation to bear. This is why hearing that The Oireachtas Committee on Education has strongly recommended that the compulsory sex education curriculum is updated to include LGBTQ+ relationships, is so exciting. It means that, unlike me and my friends, children today will be able to grow up knowing about all types of family structure.

They’ll hear at the moment they need to – and not many years too late – that they’re valid and important and good whatever their gender or sexual identity is. There is a fear (and I know this fear comes from the generational lack of LGBTQ+ education) that this is all too ‘adult’ for young children to grasp.

‘All children want is for someone to tell them that they’re OK’

But the truth is that there’s nothing inherently mature about being LGBTQ+.

A little girl with a crush on a girl is having the same vague romantic feelings as a girl with a crush on a boy. Children growing up with two mums or two dads, or trans parents, are as utterly uninterested in thinking about the mechanics of these relationships as the children of one cis mum and one cis dad.

All children want is for someone to tell them that they’re OK – and all children need is to hear that being different isn’t the same as being bad. I know from personal experience what a difference talking openly about LGBTQ+ issues can make to children. My books are mystery stories aimed at kids 8+. I try to fill them with people that seem true to life – and that’s always included LGBTQ+ characters.

Up until now, they’ve been minor parts of the stories, but in my latest book, Death in the Spotlight, I showed one of my teenage heroines coming out as a lesbian. Daisy’s crush on one of the suspects in the case is less important than the main murder plot, and as mild and full of angsty longing as her best friend Hazel’s heterosexual pining in previous books – but it felt deeply important to me to write.

It’s part of who this character is, and I wanted to show that to my readers. I was hoping for positive responses, but what I was not expecting was the outpouring of joy from young fans. Since the book was published in October last year my inbox has been full of kids’ coming-out stories.

Children thank me at signings, and one little girl was so thrilled at reading the scene that she screamed and fell down the stairs (she’s fine, don’t worry). Daisy has clearly become the kind of queer role model that my friends and I never had when we were children, and the pride that my fans take in her visibility proves to me how much characters like her – on TV, in films, in games and in books – are necessary.

Children need to be taught about all of the possibilities of LGBTQ+ identities, and shown that LGBTQ+ people can be good parents, sportspeople, film stars, doctors, politicians – and detectives. Education reassures, it supports and it combats fear, and we need education as much now as we ever did.

We live in a world where misinformation about members of the LGBTQ+ community is rife and easily accessible, a world where marriage equality is not yet a reality for many people, including (and as a British person I feel deep shame about this) Northern Ireland. But I believe that educating children about LGBTQ+ issues at school and in wider life will help show them that a much brighter future is possible.

Robin Stevens was born in California and grew up in an Oxford college, across the road from the house where Alice in Wonderland lived. She spent her teenage years at Cheltenham Ladies’ College, reading a lot of murder mysteries and hoping that she’d get the chance to do some detecting herself (she didn’t). Robin is now a full-time author, and her books, the Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries and The Guggenheim Mystery, are both award-winning and bestselling. She will appear at the Authors for Oceans event and her own solo event at The International Literature Festival Dublin on Sunday 19 May. For tickets, click here.

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